In Defense of Adults Reading YA Novels

I read this quote today from an article that appeared in The Guardian.

“Perhaps one of the most important things to note about the teen and YA market in particular, though, is that the majority of its readers (55%, according to a 2012 study) are actually adults. Yes, you read that right: adults.”

It’s that last line that bugs me.

Right up front, I’ll cop to being a little sensitive when it comes to these attempts to explain why people of any particular age do or do not read books (that may or may not) have originally been intended for them by the author. The intentional fallacy aside, I’d like to know why we care?

If 55% of adults are reading YA novels, why does there seem to be this backhanded message that, on some level, there is something wrong with these people? I can hear the whispers…“Do they not know those books are for younger people? Wouldn’t their time be better spent reading “important” adult books?” Aren’t we past this now? Are there still sheepish grownups cowering in secret reading books for young people? Give them my number, I’ll set them straight.

Call me an idealist, but I think we’re all better off if people are reading, period. It seems to me, adults reading works shelved as YA novels might just be doing some good in this cynical world of ours that seems to prize irony above all else. Maybe one of those misguided, emotionally arrested adults will read something that resonates with what kids in their own lives are feeling. Or–and I’m getting really crazy here–maybe there’s something for them in these works to apply in their own grown up lives?! I know. It’s a radical idea. I’m probably as desperate and deluded as the poor souls who don’t know they are reading far beneath their potential.

I appreciate the fact that we need to make sure young people of every background are well-served in the book market. And I believe they are, especially in light of ongoing efforts to make the children’s book market more diverse. I also understand that all of this goes directly to marketing campaigns, and sales, and the future of publishing, blah, blah, blah. But when we over-analyze why people behave in ways that we perceive as “inappropriate” given their age, we not only discriminate, but we also discount something really remarkable that is happening in the book market: books are being published that transcend age. Isn’t that what we want from a book–universal experience?

What’s more unifying than the experience of child/young adulthood? Why must we completely lose touch with that part of ourselves? Maybe a better focus of this conversation is what connections  these books might inspire? That’s reason enough to celebrate, but I think so many grown ups reading YA novels points to something even more remarkable…

Hope.

We’re desperate for it these days. And most YA novels are packed with hope, even when they have bleak endings. I’d argue the writing of a YA novel is, in and of itself, an entirely hopeful enterprise, but that’s a post for another day. My concern here is creation of an opportunity to temporarily embody a younger character, if only for the time it takes to read three or four hundred pages. Might it mean a human of any age could be finding comfort, familiarity, and connection to a person they used to be. Maybe it’s someone they would rather forget and they are grateful to have lived to see their circumstances changed? Or maybe it’s someone they desperately need to remember? Either way, I say good for the 55%. Happy to be among their ranks.

Now, can we finally change this conversation to one that considers why, as a society, we insist on judging the pleasures of reading?

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3 Query Tips Every Editor Hopes you Forget

Anyone who has submitted a manuscript–from published pro to the first timer–knows the feeling that sets in the second you click “send” on the query letter email. Anxiety takes hold almost immediate.y. Did I miss a typo? Will she like it? Will she think my letter is too short, or too long? Maybe I should have read it one more time…

Who knows? Every editor’s taste is different. One may prefer YA realism to fantasy. Another may appreciate High-concept middle grade over school tales and picture books. Some editors only publish fiction or non-fiction. But we all agree that a thoughtful pitch is the best way to garner attention no matter the genre.

So as your finger trembles over the SEND button, try to keep these things in mind:

1.  Editors are not quiet. When they are excited by manuscript they tell everyone within earshot and generally send it to them for feedback, too. I’ve been on the receiving end of a few high-fives! Oh sure, they also love to be reclusive and pore over your stories behind closed doors but bookmaking is collaborative. So remember, you’re not sending that manuscript to one person, not really. Several pairs of experienced eyes will likely take a peek if it’s a real contender for acquisition. Make that query memorable and if at all possible, make it sing!

2. Editors are NOT going to trash your work because of a typo. Most editors  who are hoping to acquire a book will generally forgive the spliced comma, errant typo, or misplaced preposition, IF (and this is a big one) the manuscript keeps them turning pages so fast that they can’t be bothered to worry about it (apologies to Strunk and White). Generally, editors are not the grammar police. They are story-seekers. If your book is un-put-downable, an editor may forgive that grammar is not your superpower.  That’s where copy editors keep everyone honest. However, if you’re manuscript is boring, lacks voice, or feels like yet another Hunger Games rip-off, you’re likely to get a form decline and no invitation to re-submit another book for consideration.

3.  Editors don’t have the final say. An editor may very well love your work, but it might not have a home on that publisher’s list right now. Perhaps they recently acquired a similar book or are looking for something very specific. But if you’re work is good, they will remember it and YOU – good news for a future submission. Trust me, editors remember names and stories. If you’re work resonates and an editor invites your to submit again, DO IT.  She will be rooting for you the next time and genuinely hoping that you keep writing.

Bottom line: as much as an editor might love your work, she is looking for reasons to decline it from the first sentence. So many manuscripts, so little time! Be certain your query and manuscript are compelling, representative of your very best work, and make the most of the few precious minutes editors have to spend with your submission. Drop your reader into a scene. Tell her something she doesn’t know and above all, don’t bore her.

 

UN-Monday: Ursula Nordstrom’s 5 tips for writing for children

The road to publication is long and filled with missteps and restarts. No one understood that better than Harper’s venerable children’s book editor, Ursula Nordstrom. Her correspondence, so thoughtfully curated in DEAR GENIUS (Marcus, 1998), is filled with revision advice for writers at every level of their careers.

In her September 27, 1961 letter to Fred Gipson, author of the Newbery Honor-winning young novel Old Yeller, she outlines five tips for writing books for children. In her note to Gipson, they are meant to help him expand and adapt an adult short story into a possible work for child readers. However, they are a nearly accidental road map for writers of young fiction, genius in their simplicity. I’ve even created a PDF below! Click UN’s list and download it to hang on the wall of your Writing Batcave.

UN!

And speaking of important reminders. I stumbled across this video from New York Times Best-selling young adult sci-fi author, Beth Revis, where she plainly discusses her own experiences with failure on the way to publishing. Sure her first novel, Across the Universe, debuted on the list (I know!) but in the video she shares how she got there by writing a bunch of novels that never went anywhere. Pair UN’s list with Beth’s inspirational vid and you’ve got a great guide to meeting today’s word count.

 

 

UN-Monday: Why does it take so long to publish a book?

Editors rarely feel like they have enough time with a manuscript.

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Image courtesy Dasha Tolstikova

There is so much to do. Developmental editing comes first–working with the author to make sure the story is the best it can be. Does it build tension from the beginning? Is it engaging throughout? Does the ending leave the reader feeling differently than when she began? Is she satisfied? Curious? Left to wonder about herself or the world in a new way? What about illustrations? Who should illustrate? Which artist is best for this particular story? In her May 4, 1955 note to Janice May Udry, UN offers us a glimpse into why the editorial  process is arduous and lengthy.

You can feel UN’s angst at the passage of time conflicting with her desire to make sure the text and illustrations worked seamlessly to tell the story A Tree is Nice.

“I am extremely sorry that I haven’t written you before this about your manuscript, A Tree is Nice. It was read in January–a week after we received it.”

Note: this letter was written four months after the manuscript was submitted! What must Janice Udry have been thinking? Does UN like my book? Is she still going to publish it? WHY HAVEN’T I HEARD FROM SOMEONE? That was 1955. Maybe Janice was a patient person, and clearly had a contract already. Even so, she must have wondered if her work had been well-received.

The reality is, whether it’s 1955 or 2015, four months isn’t really that long in publishing. I’ll just pause here while you groan, or maybe throw something…

In fact, some might argue it’s a damned speedy turnaround! Never mind Ursula didn’t have email. All of her correspondence was typed. With a typewriter. On paper. And mailed via the US Postal Service.

Can you imagine? Your email inbox is looking pretty good right now, huh? Go ahead. Click re-fresh. I’ll wait…

But it in the next paragraph of UN’s letter, we  see why it has been four months since dear Janice has heard a word. UN’s famous attention to details of text becomes apparent.

UN-UDRY-LARGE

From DEAR GENIUS, by Leonard Marcus

 

 

 

 

 

She was processing! Authors, you do this all of the time. Don’t you crave this luxury as an inalienable right? It’s vital to  creativity.

Editors need that same kind of temporal space to evaluate your creative work. That’s fair, isn’t it? Especially when you consider editors juggle multiple projects at every stage of development and face stressful deadlines of their own.

UN and Janice Udry’s collaboration on this book, labor-intensive though it may have been, was well-worth it. Legendary illustrator, Marc Simont, created the artwork and was awarded the Caldecott Medal for his efforts .

Not too shabby for a book that was just starting to evolve at the time of Ursula’s apologetic letter.

Timing is everything. If you have a book out on submission, know it takes time to do right by it. The quickest books to read take the most time, to produce. No, it does not make the waiting any easier, but it usually makes it  worth it.